Holding your breath is strange. Your body does not particularly want you to do it. Ever. Given that we evolved from the oceans hundreds of millions of years ago, you’d think we would do a slightly better job of being underwater but… nope.
So, we have to learn. Because the ocean is pretty and whales are adorable and because coral is fascinating and being submerged in the sea is a delight. Far too much motivation to resist. If being without oxygen for a little bit longer than is comfortable prepares me for being circled by a squadron of manta rays (yeah, I googled it, apparently that’s the real collective noun. Not quite as good as ‘a bubble of divers’, but I digress), then I will happily practise until I am blue in the face. Sometimes literally.
The human body is quite a whingy body and will complain about a lack of oxygen before it’s even slightly urgent. If you’ve not tried holding your breath for a long time before, the ‘whinging’ I am referring you may take you by surprise. I’m referring to contractions which are, in a word, rubbish. A contraction is a spasm of your diaphragm, which is your body demanding oxygen NOW. But actually, it doesn’t need it at all. I usually get my first contractions at around one minute thirty, and I’ll have them every minute or so after that (more regularly by the end of the breath hold), and my breath hold record is 5:34. Contractions are easy to ignore, once you realise that they are NOT your body telling you that you’re about to die. Part of what is going to improve your breath hold is understanding your body and getting comfortable with ignoring it’s complaints.
But, there are a few more ways that you can learn to increase your breath hold, and I have listed them below, especially for you.
1. Practise and experiment
Okay, okay. I know this one sounds obvious, but hear me out. If you’re reading this, you might have just finished your first freediving course, or maybe your static breath hold is already ten minutes and you’re now scouring the cybernet for a few extra tricks. Ask yourself, how often do you TRAIN your breath hold? When is the last time you actually timed how long you could hold your breath?
You’re not going to get better just by thinking about it! I also think that any amount of time can sound like a long time. 5 mins 34? It doesn’t seem real that I managed that. I would have never guessed that I would hit that record because it just sounds so long. I know a lot of speardivers who have never trained as freedivers in their lives. When I say that I can hold my breath more than five minutes, or dive to 50m, they automatically assume that I am a better freediver than them… and then I watch them disappear into the deep blue for 3+ minutes looking for a particular fish they like! The first step is testing yourself.
Time yourself, repeat, repeat, repeat. Give it a go, right now! Get your phone out and start a timer. is your time better or worse than you thought it would be?
2. Try dry.
I use the app ‘freedive apnea’ almost every night. It’s free, and very very simple. You might have already heard of freediving tables. It’s a series of breath holds at varying time intervals, matched to your ability, that will push your tolerance and train your body to deal with either high co2 or low o2 levels.
Co2 tables are designed to condition your body to fight the urge to breathe. You will want to breathe before you need to breathe, so co2 tables help you recognise contractions (kinda like a burning feeling) and become accustomed to them. To do this, you do a set of breath-holds, with the time in between the breath hold decreasing every time. Throughout the exercise, the co2 in your blood and tissues will begin to increase and the last breath hold is likely to be the hardest! The freedive apnea app will start by getting you to do one breath hold for as long as you can. Then, it will build you your own personal table based on that, and time you through a session.
On the other hand, o2 tables are designed to increase your breath hold. Rather than decreasing the time between breath holds, you increase the time of your breath hold. You’ll recover for the same amount of time between holds, and usually increase the time you hold your breath by about 15 seconds every time. This means there is no carbon dioxide build up because you are recovering nicely between each dive, but by the end of your breath holds the oxygen will be reduced, training your body to function with low o2 levels.
3. Watch other freedivers
I spend my life around people who freedive. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count my pals who can hold their breath longer than me. They make it seem as easy as pie. When you’re surrounded by people who can hold their breath for seven minutes, no worries, then suddenly aiming for two minutes seems a lot less daunting, as you’re surrounded by proof that it’s possible. Once you know you can achieve two minutes, three minutes seems a more obtainable goal. Then four minutes… you see where I’m going with this.
In 1953, Roger Bannister was the first ever recorded human to run a mile in under four minutes. Before that, it was deemed impossible. In 1861 a man from Ireland had managed 4:30. In 92 years, thirty seconds progress had been made. But as soon as Roger broke the barrier, people started seeing the four-minute-mile as an achievable goal. Nowadays, Roger- and the other 1500 people who have conquered the four minute goal, serve as motivation.
When you are faced with undeniable facts that something is possible, it becomes a lot harder to treat it like it isn’t. I’m not saying you can hop over to youtube and watch the 24- minute world record breath hold and immediately give it a go, but it will help put into perspective the mad things your body is capable of when you put your mind to it.
4. Use it to pass the time
The world is full (to the BRIM at the moment thanks corona) of mundane little moments filled with nothing to do but wait. Challenge yourself to a breath hold in these moments. My favourite examples are driving through tunnels (as the passenger, please don’t pass out and crash you psycho); when anyone is underwater in any scene on the TV ever (spoiler alert: don’t try this during Finding Nemo); while waiting for the microwave to finish; when my phone or computer are restarting; while your video is rendering or exporting (one for the avid videographers out there); or for the duration of a song I like.
This little technique can be used underwater, too. When I first started training, I was so focussed on improving my breath hold that I would simply hold onto the rope, stay still and… contemplate holding my breath. While this is actually a good technique, I find my average breath hold would be around two minutes. On the other hand, when I’m trying to ID or tag a shark, or trying to get a picture of a cute nudibranch, or generally doing anything underwater that distracts me (aka anything colourful… aka everything), my hold time improves drastically because I’m not actively thinking about how much I’d rather be breathing. That’s one of the main things that got me into underwater photography, too!
5. Keep up good habits!
Not everything about your breath hold is related to practising and perfecting your technique. You’ll find that living a healthy lifestyle makes a huge difference- although this is definitely a long term solution. Exercising often, losing weight, avoiding smoking or alcohol, not eating red meat and even learning to sing will all benefit your breath hold. Your heart rate and lung volume are both factors that affect the length of your breath hold- a fast pulse will use up oxygen more quickly, so being healthier and slowing your pulse enables you to use more oxygen. Learning to sing- or playing a brass instrument!- will get you used to stretching your lung capacity, so you can take in more air to begin with! It seems a little crazy that such random things can add up to you being able to last longer without breathing but the logic is there and I can say from experience, it works. Except the singing thing. Learning to sing is beyond me and I shall most likely spend the rest of my days as a tuneless egg.
· You should always do any in water training with a BUDDY, never dive alone! And you mustn’t dive at the same time. If your buddy is diving, you should be watching them for their safety, and vice versa.
· You should practise these techniques on dry land, or at the surface, first of all. Don’t dive too deep before you’re ready.
· Don’t feel pressured to beat your personal records. It’s better to relax and listen to your body. If you need a day off, you need a day off. Putting strain on yourself is going to make freediving, and holding your breath, much more difficult.
· Just… listen to your body in general. If you wake up more tired than usual, or if you come over tired in the water, or during a breath hold, STOP. Otherwise you are likely to end up light headed, dizzy, seeing spots in front of your eyes and ultimately pass out. You don’t want this to happen on dry land- and especially not in the water.